The Utopian Communities in 19th-Century America

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: GREAT UTOPIAN AND DYSTOPIAN WORKS OF LITERATURE

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

Imagine a beautiful lake, just a mile or so from a small town. Imagine a little cabin by that lake, with nothing but the basics: a table, a chair, a bed, and a lot of reading and writing materials. This is what some of the literary minds in 19th-century America imagined as the ultimate utopia.

The illustration shows railroads being built in America.
The planned utopian communities in 19th-century America tried to provide an alternative to mainstream life, which was starting to bustle, whether you lived in a rural or an urban area. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The American Dream

The 19th-century American concept of utopia makes one wonder: Is there a sense of utopian imagination at the center of the American Dream? The term American Dream was popularized in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, but the idea that every citizen should have equal rights, freedoms, opportunities is stipulated in the Declaration of Independence.

There is a way to argue that the very concept of America is based on the idea of creating a perfect world, or at least a better world, one that places the precept of equality at its center, just as almost all utopias do.

Now of course we know, as American utopians did almost 200 years ago, that talking about equality and creating equality are two very different things.

Equal rights and freedoms may be legally built into the fabric of America, but they were not accessible to all. And these Americans saw utopia in a new way, a more dramatically political way.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Planned Communities in America

Instead of utopia being something you read about in a satirical travelogue or an earnest political treatise, it became something that you could do, something you could join.

Between 1825-1860, there were almost 100 planned utopian communities in the United States. These tried to provide an alternative to mainstream 19th-century life, which was starting to bustle, whether you lived in a rural or an urban area.

Some of these communities were religiously based, like those run by the Quakers or the Shakers, but many of them were non-denominational, like those based on the big European utopian socialist philosophers.

Learn more about Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

The Goals of Brook Farm for Utopian Communities

Brook Farm, also known as the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education was founded by Unitarian Minister George Ripley and his wife Sophia in 1841 in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. It was technically a joint stock company of which members could purchase shares.

George Ripley was a member of a Transcendental Club, and his goals for the community were clear: firstly, to ensure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists. Secondly, to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual.

And finally, to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can now be led amidst the pressures of our competitive institutions.

The Short Life of Brook Farm

Brook Farm operated from 1841–1846, and it started as a transcendentalist community before adopting a limited Fourier approach in its last three years. 

But as it shifted toward Fourierism, some changes occurred. For one, the farm made a profit for the first time. Also, it began to attract more tradespeople, rather than only intellectuals like ministers, teachers and writers (founding members).

As the community members became increasingly invested in their project, they began building a Fourier-style Phalanstery, or communal living space. Unfortunately, the partially constructed edifice caught fire in 1847.

No one was injured, but the fire effectively brought an end to not only the new Fourierism, but the Brook Farm project. So, in some ways a failed experiment, but in others, a place where much was learned.

Fruitland: A Small Utopian Community

A planned community of a very different but equally prevalent kind than Brook Farm was founded in 1843 by a small group of earnest utopians affiliated with the Latter-day Saints. It was based on pretty typical philosophical underpinnings of the time (very much in line with Transcendentalism).

A portrait of Louisa May Alcott.
Louisa May Alcott provides a feminist satirical look at Fruitland in Transcendental Wild Oats; A Chapter from an Unwritten Romance. (Image: Adam Cuerden/Public domain)

This small community was unable to make it through the first New England winter. Interestingly, it was founded by Charles Lane and Amos Bronson Alcott, father of the famous writer of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott.

Alcott wrote a short story about her adventures as a child in this community that she published in The Independent, a New York newspaper, in 1873. She called it, Transcendental Wild Oats; A Chapter from an Unwritten Romance.

Unwritten in the sense that she didn’t write the whole romance, which was a word for novel, but also that the romantic adventure of utopia was never actually experienced. Alcott provides a feminist satirical look at Fruitland, mocking the utopian enterprise as well as the types of people, especially the men, attracted to planned communities.

Learn more about the utopian satire.

A Failed Community in Alcott’s Eyes

She suggests in her book that the dynamics between people are the dynamics of a failed community. The learned men are completely confident in their strong, philosophical stances against meat, but without any alternate source of protein; against leather, but with no suggestions for how to make shoes; against money, but with nothing else to barter for the many, many necessities that they can’t produce in their little community.

In the end, predictably, the enterprise—in the short story as in real life—goes belly up. “The world was not ready for Utopia yet,” the narrator says in giving the father’s perspective:

To live for one’s principles, at all costs, is a dangerous speculation; and the failure of an ideal, no matter how humane and noble, is harder for the world to forgive and forget than bank robbery or the grand swindles of corrupt politicians.

Alcott’s skepticism is evident in these lines, but utopia was central to American literature in 19th century. The 19th century was an amazing time for technology, for literature, for thought itself. It was the century of Marx, of Darwin, of railroads, of print culture. It was the century of utopia.

Common Questions about the Utopian Communities in 19th-Century America

Q: Who founded the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education?

The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education was founded by Unitarian Minister George Ripley and his wife Sophia in 1841 in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Q: What does Louisa May Alcott think about the utopian communities in Transcendental Wild Oats; A Chapter from an Unwritten Romance?

Louisa May Alcott provides a feminist satirical look at Fruitland in Transcendental Wild Oats; A Chapter from an Unwritten Romance. She mocks the utopian enterprise as well as the types of people, especially the men, attracted to planned communities.

Q: What was the aim of planned utopian communities in 19th-century America?

The planned utopian communities in 19th-century America tried to provide an alternative to mainstream life, which was starting to bustle, whether you lived in a rural or an urban area.

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